Senior political appointees in the Trump administration last week ordered federal officials to immediately draft a rule to increase the number of visas issued to seasonal foreign workers for Maine and Alaska innkeepers and fisheries, according to a report published Tuesday evening by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization.

Several sources, who were not named, told ProPublica that the sudden directive had drawn concern because it was tailored to states represented by Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowksi, Republicans whose votes are considered crucial to passage of the Senate’s health care bill.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on the allegations in the report, which followed the department’s announcement last week that it wouldn’t authorize any additional H-2B visas for low-skilled seasonal workers until late July, leaving many Maine hotels, restaurants, and other tourism businesses critically shorthanded until at least mid-August, once application processing times are taken into account.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine

Collins announced Monday evening that she would not vote for the current health care overhaul after the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the plan would increase the number of uninsured Americans by 22 million while dramatically raising premiums and deductibles and allowing the imposition of lifetime caps on benefits.

A spokeswoman for Collins said her office had not been approached about any sort of horse trading regarding the health care bill and the additional H-2B visas, which Maine’s tourism industry is desperate to secure.

“There have been no such discussions and no link or attempt to link the H-2B issue with the health care bill and it is not something we would be interested in and is not something the administration would do,” said the spokeswoman, Annie Clark.

Maine businesses requested 2,877 H-2B visas this year, but only 700 were approved because of a cap imposed by Congress. That forced some seasonal businesses to curtail services, just as the summer tourism season is getting underway. After an outcry – including letters from Maine Gov. Paul LePage and the state’s entire congressional delegation – Congress last month authorized Homeland Security to nearly double the number of visas available this year, adding up to 63,500 nationwide.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska

But nearly a month later, Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Labor still haven’t issued a single extra visa, and say they won’t until late this month at the earliest. In a letter sent to Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly Wednesday afternoon, Sens. Collins, Angus King, I-Maine, and four other senators said they had heard reports that the department was considering issuing far fewer visas than Congress had authorized – possibly as few as 18,500.

“We are concerned that the timeline for approving H-2B applications would hinder businesses’ ability to hire the employees they need and leave them without help until late in the summer season,” the senators wrote. “We respectfully urge you to use the authority provided by Congress to increase the number of H-2B visas available to seasonal workers, and to work with the Department of Labor to ensure that visas are available as soon as possible.”

THE NEED TO COORDINATE

A spokeswoman for Kelly, Joanne Talbot, said he had “made a decision to assist a limited number of seasonal businesses that would be severely harmed if they do not receive temporary employment relief under the H2B program” but that “the need to coordinate with the Department of Labor to identify businesses truly at risk if they do not receive additional temporary workers, and the myriad steps required under federal rule-making before DHS can issue new visas” meant they would not be issued until late July at the earliest.

Talbot also emphasized that only severely affected businesses would receive visa approvals.

“The Administration and the Department are committed to protecting American jobs and U.S. workers,” Talbot added. “DHS is only seeking to provide visas to truly seasonal industries that would be severely/significantly harmed by not receiving H2B visas which would adversely impact US workers employed by these seasonal businesses.”

Talbot declined to comment on the ProPublica report or to say if Maine and Alaska were receiving special attention as the rules were revised.

DELAYS CAUSING HARM

King’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Steve Hewins, president of the Maine Innkeepers Association and the Maine Restaurant Association, said the delays are causing serious harm to Maine’s tourism sector.

“Every single day that we don’t see those workers in Maine, Maine’s hospitality businesses are losing money,” he said. “From a crisis standpoint I can tell you that our entire industry is impacted by not having these workers. I know restaurants that are limiting their hours because they can’t get enough staff to serve their customers.”

Hewins also said that the Maine hospitality industry’s use of the program didn’t harm U.S. workers, as Kelly has suggested, but rather allowed businesses to fill positions they couldn’t source locally.

“I can assure anybody that this industry would hire local people if they were available but they are not,” he said. “On the ground in Maine some people think that foreign workers are cheaper workers, but they’re actually infinitely more expensive because not only do you have to pay them the prevailing wage but you have to pay for them to get here. … They’re not displacing anyone.”

Colin Woodard can be contacted at:

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